Zheng He, the Great Chinese Explorer: A Bilingual Story of Adventure and Discovery

illus. by Li Jian. 42p. Better Link. 2015. Tr $16.95. ISBN 9781602209909.
K-Gr 3—Written in English and simplified Chinese characters, this picture book serves as a great introduction to the Chinese explorer Zheng He. Zheng (1371–1433) lead a massive fleet of ships and sailed voyages to India, the Persian Gulf, and the east coast of Africa. In this book that's filled with facts about the size of the fleet and how the ships communicated on the open water, Li imagines that Zheng is motivated to become a sailor and explore the world in order to find the brilliant blue pigment that decorated a pot his father brought home from Mecca. In Li's account, Zheng wants to become a sailor, a dream he achieves after his family is killed in war and he starts working for a prince (Li leaves out Zheng being taken as a prisoner-of-war and being made a eunuch). After several voyages, Zheng finally finds cobalt, the blue he has been looking for. This new avenue of trade gives Ming Dynasty porcelain its distinctive white-and-blue color scheme. While there is back matter about how to make this porcelain, there is no author's note separating out known facts about Zheng He from Li's imagination, limiting its use as biography but hopefully sparking further exploration. Li's large watercolor paintings appropriately evoke Zheng's seafaring adventures. Zheng's Islamic faith and Hui ethnicity are not mentioned, but illustrations of precourt life show him wearing the white cap common in Hui ethnic dress.
VERDICT A serviceable addition that walks a fine line between fiction and nonfiction.

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